The Zapatistas Interrogate History
Reflections from the First Plenary Session of Mexico’s Other Campaign
By Mitchell Anderson
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
September 21, 2005
“…We will conquer the place that belongs to us and that we deserve as indigenous people, as peasants, as the exploited. The fight is ours, our heritage is ours, history is ours.”
– Comandante David
Zapatista Army of National Liberation
September 16, 2005
LA GARRUCHA, CHIAPAS; AROUND 2. A.M. FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2005: The relentless tromp of boots pounding through the mud, exhausted, electric minds in the Tzeltal region of the Lacandon Jungle, looking for a place to throw their bones after a long journey to La Garrucha—the third Caracol, named, “Resistance for a New Sunrise.”
The after-midnight, anxious rumors place the head count in the thousands. Tents are popping up everywhere. The familiar indigenous music of the canyons is hitting on all cylinders. Hundreds are dancing in the muddy quagmire. The place is alive. This is why murals are made. This weekend will make history.
195 years ago, late in the evening, around 11pm, of September 15, 1810 in Dolores Hidalgo, Miguel Hidalgo seized on the swelling energy of the Mexican masses, and shouted, in what is now known simply as ‘el grito’, “Viva México.” The history books will tell you that ‘el grito’ was the pinnacle of colonial México’s desire for freedom and independence from the Spanish crown; it was the pivotal moment, the turning of the tides, when the peasants and indigenous of Mexico united following the Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo in the revolution of Independence. What the history books won’t tell you is that ‘el grito’ was a moment of false promises—the beginning of failure. For the next century México would be led by an incestuous, feudal oligarchy that utilized the language of freedom and independence, but pushed for neither.
It is not a coincidence that the first plenary session of “The Other Campaign” coincides with Mexican Independence Day. The Zapatistas are wizards of symbolism. They don’t renounce Mexico’s history, even though it has oppressed them; they embrace it; they understand it; they use it.
A little before 11pm, only three hours ago, the Junta de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Council) of this Caracol, entered into the Assembly Hall to the chants of “Zapata vive, la lucha sigue, Zapata vive vive, la lucha sigue sigue.” (“Zapata Lives, the fight continues!”) They led the crowds in ‘el grito’: “Viva Zapata, Viva el EZLN, Viva México.” For someone who was expecting ‘el grito’ to rupture the sound barrier, to fragment reality into microscopic shards, ‘el grito’ seemed to be missing something. Later, I got to talking about it with a man named Umberto.
Umberto works for the Frente Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional in Jalapa, Veracruz. He’s an astute, insistent man. His face is beet-red, his skin a deep bronze from the Jalapa sun, his forehead immense, stretched, and coated with sweat. He smokes cigarettes as if they are the necessary (not sufficient) condition for a complete thought. He sat down next to me at around 1am in a makeshift comedor (dining area) outside the medical clinic.
“El grito de Hidalgo doesn’t echo with the people anymore. It’s in the corridors of the Government Palace. The government has appropriated our heroes. It’s nationalized the Revolution. The task ahead of us involves history. It is to de-educate ourselves, and then re-educate ourselves. The Sexta (the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle) is different from the earlier revolutions for this reason. The peasants and indigenous fought behind Hidalgo, but then the oligarchy governed. Hidalgo was assassinated after the first revolution and Zapata after the second. The Sexta separates itself from the political class for this reason. The press doesn’t understand the need for such a severance. But it’s necessary. It’s a history lesson. The Other Campaign looks to create something different, walking side by side with the people, listening to them.”
History is illuminated in the arguments of strangers after midnight. We could be witnessing here this weekend the commencement of the third Mexican Revolution.
AROUND 2 P.M., FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, LA GARRUCHA: It all begins at 8pm tonight. The anticipation is thick. From what we know, the Zapatista Sixth Commission will present a plan (dates and locations?) for the next phase of The Other Campaign. That is, how it will go about traveling around the Mexican Republic, visiting and listening to all the ‘honest and humble’ people who invite them, looking to transform the structure of society from below. But for now, it is time to observe the scene: the rare habits of an eclectic lefty crowd amped for the evening’s affairs.
I’m curious about the journalists here. As they wander past the murals, the hackey-sackers, the CISEN Intelligence agents, the artists, the emaciated dogs, the peasants, the ranters and ravers, the indigenous children, and women and men, the old-hacks, the mystics, the singers, the poets, the stoners enduring a couple days without their bud, the hard-core indigenous activists, I wonder what questions they are asking, what they are looking for. For most I’m sure their story already has a frame and a paint job, they’re just looking for the adornments. But before I can get to them, I must begin with the Communists.
The Ominous Stare of Stalin
A band of about 15 Mexicans from the Mexican Communist Party have militantly hung up four enormous photographs of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, in the form of tarps, on the east side of the Assembly Hall. It even appears as if they are taking turns guarding the tarps. There is noticeable discontent and irritation among many about the monstrous presence of Stalin.
The obvious question: What message does this send? The press is flocking here in droves. The previous six meetings of The Other Campaign have received either extremely minimal or extremely poor coverage (except of course from your correspondent Al at Narco News and Hermann at La Jornada). This is definitely a defining moment for the movement. It’s that wobbling point just after inertia, where momentum can kick in or peter out. Imagine plastered on the front pages of the major dailies in Europe a giant picture of that stern, paranoid look of Stalin, right beneath the headlines, “Zapatistas kick off The Other Campaign.”
A young girl from Holland approaches the Communists and says that the image of Stalin makes her sad about humanity, and she would “like them to take their poster down.” The Communists however don’t understand why she would be so offended. Stalin was “heroically leading socialism into its natural, ultimate sanctuary…communism,” they say. The girl responds, “But he murdered 50 million people.” She leaves, without any real resolution.
It makes me wonder if the thousands of nonprofits, leftist political organizations, unions, cultural collectives, and individuals can put aside their differences, can throw away the rigidities of ideology, and embrace a shared cause: The Other Campaign.
A Model of Journalistic Form
Edgar Munoz, from Univision, a big, nice, dorky looking Chicano with a blue cap, was rushing off to check whether the morning clips they took were going to air at the 5:30 slot in the states.
I accosted him: “Hey man, I was wondering, you know, with so many journalists here and all, what are you guys doing? I mean, what are you looking for? What kind of questions are you asking?”
“We’re all waiting for Marcos to speak tonight” he responds.
“But what kind of questions are you asking?” I insist.
He reoriented himself quickly to the introduction of slight tension: “Well, from what I understand tomorrow (Saturday) there will be discussions…and we will report on that.”
“So, no questions? What about space? Do they give you enough space to work with? I mean, will you be able to delve into some depth?”
“Yah, space isn’t the problem. I’ll tell you this: We’ve been interviewing people since this morning, and they just don’t want to talk” he replies, gesturing earnestly with a fake microphone, as if he was shoving it right below someone’s chin.
It should be mentioned here that Univision, one of the primary Spanish language news sources in the United States, was gone by Saturday (along with the rest of the commercial journalists—again minus Narco News and La Jornada, and also Jo Tuckman of the Guardian of London). When the dust clears, and the meeting closes, it’s real easy to spot who has stuck around. The meeting ended on Sunday in the early afternoon. Depth from Univision? I doubt it.
AROUND 7.PM., FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, LA GARRUCHA: There was a rainbow a bit ago, that came from the shoulder of the hill to the left, and slowly, as the dark-gray clouds dissipated, became complete. And then, behind it, another rainbow formed. Who believes in hope? A storm is brewing.
Different Worlds, Existing Side-By-Side
APPROACHING MIDNIGHT, FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, LA GARRUCHA: The inauguration of The Other Campaign is over. Its future has been given, like a gift, to the people. It has always been clear, from the moment the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle was released, that the success of this movement was going to depend on the commitment and the will of the people.
Under the heavy gray sky I watch the crowds dancing. For a moment, in the music, all differences dissipate. Anything is possible, or at least, that’s what it seems like.
There are flame dancers twirling next to the indigenous children, who rock back and forth, conservatively, careful with their customs, distant, not-touching. Many different worlds exist tonight under the same jungle sky. Each depends on each other. I hope this is understood.
Mafalda and Mexico
Several hours ago, cramped and sweating profusely in the middle of the mayhem commencement of The Other Campaign, kneeling behind the patch of intransigent photographers in the front that were being lambasted by the crowd (“sit down, sit down, sit down”), I thought of Mafalda.
The thought was lucid. It came right at what I took to be the climax of Marcos’s speech (after all the joking was done): “What we are going to do, together, is shake up this country from below, lift it, and turn it on its head. Then we’ll be able to see all of the despojo, contempt and exploitation.”
Mafalda (a famous comic strip character, something like a Latin American Charlie Brown, or, better said, Lucy Van Pelt) one day, was looking at a globe. And she realized that her country, Argentina, was below the equator, and that everyone below the equator lived their lives upside down. She was exasperated, stunned; it was one of those moments for a child (like the realization that Santa Claus doesn’t exist), where reality disintegrates for a second, and then congeals, anew. She concluded that all of the poverty and social discontent of those continents below the equator was the direct result of the fact that they were living upside down (‘cabeza abajo’). All of the progressive, economically savvy ideas of the north didn’t catch on below the equator because it was physically impossible: ideas would just fall out of people’s heads.
México is above the equator, and thus, according to Mafalda, right side-up. The genius of Mafalda (or perhaps better put: Quino’s clairvoyance—the genius Argentinean cartoonist who created Mafalda) only goes so far. Yes, it is true that the modern, neo-liberal ideas of structural adjustment, direct foreign investment, de-regulation, privatization, free-flow of capital, etc, have not dropped out of the heads of the Mexican political class. In fact, they’ve been wired into its very circuitry. In this Mafalda was right. But what to make of the social discontent, the poverty, the exploitation? It hasn’t been eliminated as Mafalda, ironically, suggests.
What is The Other Campaign going to do? Metaphorically, it’s going to flip this country upside down, and see what falls out of its pockets, and out of its head.
“We’re going to shake up this country, and maybe we will discover that what was México wasn’t upright, that everything shouldn’t have been that way….
Some day, Mexico will stand right side up again. But as Marcos said, “We’re going to make Mexico new—new, between the Pacific and the Atlantic, and between the Rio Bravo and the Suchiate.”
AROUND 2 A.M., SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, LA GARRUCHA: Through the swampy, buzz of the crowd, I could only make out a fragment, but it was enough. The journalist standing next to me said to his photographer, “this is like mimicking a presidential campaign. It’s politics, nothing more.”
James McKinley from the New York Times had said something similar to me in a previous meeting in San Miguel: “Marcos is a politician. And he’s Marxist too.”
Yes, Marcos, or Delegate Zero, as he will be referred to, will be traveling the country, beginning on January 1, 2006 in San Cristobal de Las Casas—precisely 12 years after the Zapatista Army of National Liberation stormed from the mountains of the Lacandon Jungle, occupying the town halls of seven municipal capitals: Altamirano, Chanal, Huixtán, Las Margaritas, Oxchuc, Ocosingo, and San Cristobal de Las Casas.
The timing of this loop around the country is definitely that of a presidential campaign. But cynicism should not be part of the equation. It has been explicitly stated that The Other Campaign does not seek to take power either through the electorate or in the conventional coup-de-tat. It is a movement of consciousness and it is based on a sturdy premise. Octavio Paz in Labyrinth of Solitude put it this way: “political action is insufficient if it is not preceded by a transformation of the very structure of society and by an examination of the assumptions on which it is based.”
Delegate Zero, after 22 years of residing, planning military maneuvers, studying, training, writing mystery novels, philosophizing with a beetle based on the character of Sancho Panza named Don Durito, and leading an indigenous revolution, etc, will leave his home in the mountains of the southeast of Mexico and embark on a six month journey throughout every state of the Mexican Republic. The idea is for Delegate Zero to travel through the hills and valleys of Mexico, and listen to the ‘honest and humble’ people that reside in the hamlets and in the metropolis’s, to gage the best plan of action for The Other Campaign. That is, to orient the future path of The Other Campaign, and lay out the blueprints for it. In September of 2006, two months after Delegate Zero returns to the mountains, a group of indigenous Mayans from the Lacandon Jungle, who will be known as the Sixth Commission, will then travel to the places that Delegate Zero deems vital, important, strategic, or what-have-you.
It should be noted here, that Delegate Zero will be unarmed, will not have a bank account and will not accept gifts of any kind. He will not be on the stump; he will be listening to the people. And he will go where is invited, not where votes are in high demand.
A Politics of Honesty and Openness
AROUND 10 A.M., SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2005, LA GARRUCHA: A secret letter was delivered to the General Command of the Zapatista Army in the nighttime, signed by Luis H. Alvarez, the appointed Commissioner for Peace in Chiapas. The letter proposed a secret meeting with the Sixth Commission to make ‘agreements.’ Marcos announced this morning, only a half-hour ago, that upon opening the letter, it was “immediately rejected.” Commander Tacho delivered the notification of rejection.
There was a tangible sense of pride circulating throughout the crowd. As if an immense, collective sigh said, “At last, honesty.”
This movement will go nowhere with the foofy, flower-power of the left. The Agenda for the proceedings today are clear: There are six points to be discussed throughout the course of the day:
- The characteristics of The Other Campaign
- Who is invited and who isn’t?
- Organizational structure
- What are the special spaces for including differences (i.e. indigenous, women, gays, lesbians, children)
- The positioning of The Other Campaign before other national forces.
- Immediate tasks at hand.
Any adherent to The Other Campaign, that is, any housewife, mother, elderly, anarchist, gay, lesbian, transvestite, child, peasant, indigenous, musician, communist, artist or member of a collective, nonprofit, leftist political organization, or cultural group that has signed up to participate in the The Other Campaign will have five minutes to give their opinion or proposal on the aforementioned six points. The points will be dealt with in consecutive fashion. It’s time to get to work.
Cesar Reyes is a member of the National Miners Union (Port of Michoacan Section-271). He steps down from the podium to a thunderous roar from the crowd. His closing words were addressed to the corrupt union leaders in bed with the government: “chinga su madre” (Fuck your mother).
I was sitting behind the communists close to the back of the Assembly Hall. Their eyes lit like halogen bulbs. Before Cesar Reyes could m”ke it into the fresh air, the communists were all over him, patting him on the back, asking his name, and giving him the communist pitch. I watched, amused. Later we got a chance to speak.
How many people from your union have joined The Other Campaign?
Cesar Reyes: “We’re a small group, maybe 15 or so. But were here, ready to start working to change this god damn country.”
Why did you guys join?
Cesar Reyes: “Cause this country is fucked, living off the exploitation of the workers.”
How come others haven’t decided to join The Other Campaign?
Cesar Reyes: Napoleon Gomez is the Secretary General of the National Miners Union. He has threatened our whole group, all of us who have joined, with kicking us out of the Union. I don’t expect we’ll be members of Miners Union for very much longer. Yah, everyone is scared of Gomez and the other union leaders.
Is there any hope that more members will join The Other Campaign?
Cesar Reyes: Once we get back to Michoacan, and this thing starts coming together. Our compañeros will see where this thing is headed. Yah, they’ll join.
Settling Old Debts: A Problem of Expectations
Pedro Grande Valencia is from Tlaxcala, and is a member of La Asamblea Nacional de Braceros. He stands with me in the searing sun and tells me stories about picking strawberries and tomatoes outside of Sacramento, California in the late 1940’s, and about the vast cotton fields in Rio Ondo and Pecos, Texas in the early 1950’s. His hands are rough, but his little eyes, beaming out from under his sombrero, are as gentle as they come. I ask him why he’s here, and he tells me proudly: “In Tlaxcala there are 5000 more of us. We were all in the United States working from 1942-1957, working really hard in the fields. And when we get back to Mexico, the government steals are money. They took 10% of our money each year when we were up north, guaranteeing that we’d get it back in the form of a check. They never gave it to us.”
I then asked him, a little unsure, so this is why you’re here, to get your money back?
He replied simply, “yes.”
The story of Señor Valencia, and the other 5000 braceros in Tlaxcala, and the thousands more in Jalisco, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Michoacan, Hidalgo, Puebla, and Oaxaca, illuminates a potential problem for The Other Campaign. It is a problem of perception and expectation.
Throughout the weekend I met many others like Señor Valencia, who saw The Other Campaign as a means to resolve parochial problems. For example, Francisco Araujo Guzman from the “Ejercito por La Defensa del Cuidado del Agua” (The Army for the Defense of Water Protection) in Mexico City, explained his reasons: “We’re looking for help to reforest the water zones. In Villa Victoria, Michoacan, Guerrero, and Mexico City, the water is a big problem, and the government just ignores us. We hope that with The Other Campaign we’ll be able to get something done.”
In and of itself, the perception that The Other Campaign can help the specific problems of organizations and peoples throughout Mexico is not problematic. Indeed, that is the whole idea. The question however is twofold: First, to quote an old Otis Rush song: “you get out what you put in.” And second, if things don’t get resolved quickly or if through consensus The Other Campaign chooses certain issues as priorities and leaves others on the backburner how patient will the people be?
Listening: The Forgotten Virtue
The Zapatistas sit stoically and intently, burning-up in their ski-masks, listening hour in and hour out to the rants and raves, to the calm analysis, to the modest proposals, to the foolish proposals, to the grand proposals, to the self-laments, to the self-exaltations…basically, to everything. And for what?
There is an ancient concept: those who fight a common enemy should become acquainted.
But to become acquainted is merely to acknowledge a presence—the existence of the other. The Other Campaign is novel in that it amplifies the ancient maxim: those who fight a common enemy should become acquainted and listen to each other.
To the ancient Maya, the caracol (snail) has more than 100 different meanings. There is one in particular that moves me: the caracol is the entrance to and exit of the heart.
In the early afternoon of Sunday, beat-to-all-hell, under a furious jungle sun, we all began making our way out of the Caracol of La Garrucha—we began making our way out of the heart.
We were all packed, standing like chickens, or hogs, or cattle (take your pick) in truck beds, riding through the Patihuitz Canyon, heading towards Ocosingo. There were four trucks in our line. The amorphous sky of the canyon began to close over us with ponderous dark-gray storm clouds. The sky broke. It began to pour. And we continued on through the canyon, under the elements, carrying The Other Campaign on our shoulders, leaving the heart, chanting: “Zapata vive, la lucha sigue! Zapata vive vive, la lucha sigue sigue!”
Click here for more Narco News coverage of Mexico
Narco News is funded by your contributions to The Fund for Authentic Journalism.
Please make journalism like this possible by going to The Fund's web site
and making a contribution today.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism
For more Narco News, click here.